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Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

Indian inmate sues to gain religious rights

October 4, 2004

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— An American Indian inmate serving a life sentence for murder has sued the state, claiming Nebraska is violating federal law by not allowing Indians behind bars to practice their native religion.

Richard Walker, a 57-year-old Winnebago, filed the lawsuit, saying he is frustrated by the inability of American Indian inmates to meet as a group and have their own club at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Walker said he and other tribal members in the prison must meet in secret, because they're not allowed to gather as a group. During one such secret meeting in the prison's yard to pray and honor the spirits of loved ones, they were spotted by a guard who summoned other guards to break up the meeting.

Walker filed the lawsuit more than a year ago, saying the state was in contempt of a 1974 U.S. District Court consent decree that guaranteed American Indian inmates religious rights.

Lawyers for the inmates say they may settle the case with the state as early as next week.

Besides not being able to convene or form a religious group, Walker said American Indian inmates were not allowed adequate access to the prison's sweatlodge -- sacred in tribal culture -- and that the prison refused to allow spiritual leaders from outside into the prison to conduct ceremonies.

Warden Mike Kenney declined to comment on specifics of the case but said religious groups at the prison were allowed to meet twice a week, once for religious worship and once for religious education. He also disputed claims that outside spiritual leaders were not allowed in the prison to conduct tribal ceremonies.

Kenney said American Indian inmates were allowed to participate in the sweatlodge, or inipi, ceremony twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays.

However, Walker said American Indian inmates should be allowed access to the sweatlodge at all times, just as Christian inmates are allowed access to a chapel anytime.

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